It's a muggy night at the Gulfport Art Walk, and Victor Helou has a story to sell.
"Come see my book!" he calls to passers-by from behind a card table covered in black and white prints. "Come see pictures of Marilyn Monroe!"
Some smile wanly and walk past. Others, curious, come over for a closer look. Helou gives them the same speech every time.
On May 19, 1962, he tells them, he was in Madison Square Garden as Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to You to President John F. Kennedy. A chorus member in that night's show, he sneaked backstage with a camera and snapped 108 pictures of the stars. He kept the negatives in a safe deposit box for 49 years.
This year, he dug them out of storage and self-published a book, Happy Birthday Mr. President, about the night he can't forget.
"There she was — Marilyn Monroe!" he crows to potential customers. "You could see straight through her dress!"
• • •
Helou is 80 now, with thinning hair and thick glasses. He lives alone in a tiny apartment in South Pasadena, surrounded by mementos of his glory days as a chorus member on Broadway. There he is next to Barbra Streisand during the original run of Funny Girl, grinning during the national tour of Man of La Mancha, mugging for the camera in promotional shots for The Sound of Music and The King and I.
Helou believes in keeping track of things. He carefully labels each of his photos, saves letters from old employers, frames high school certificates and hangs them on his living room wall. He keeps a list of jokes in his pocket in case he needs to cheer someone up.
"I love making people laugh," he said.
But nothing is more important than the 108 negatives he keeps in the safe deposit box.
"None of these photos have ever been published before," he says, reverently flipping through the pages of his book. "The New York Times didn't even have a photographer there."
Helou's memory of that night is so clear that he can recall individual conversations, the most minute details — how Jack Benny flirted with Monroe, how Shirley MacLaine called Helou "honey" when he snapped a picture of her.
For a kid who grew up in lazy St. Petersburg and spent his afternoons selling nickel ice creams at his father's ice cream store, May 19, 1962, felt like the closest he would ever get to royalty.
As it turns out, it was.
Helou has lived modestly since the eight years he spent on Broadway — working in regional theater, posing for local ad campaigns, singing the national anthem at veterans events.
"He's a great guy. We've worked with him for years," said Ryan Marshall, Helou's agent and the vice president of Benz Model and Talent. "He still checks in with us all the time. There's not a ton of opportunities for him because of his age, but he's very talented."
Helou moved to New York after a stint in the military and four years at the University of Miami, where he majored in theater. He started acting in college, when he auditioned for a musical at the drama department. "I saw six beautiful girls in short skirts dancing around, and I said, 'Hey, I like this!' " he said, laughing. In New York, he auditioned for four shows without a callback until a music director told him he wasn't a leading man, he was a character actor.
"He said, 'Look for a song that has personality,' " Helou said. "I sang You Gotta Have Heart, from Damn Yankees, and after that I got everywhere."
Between auditions, he worked in a darkroom and shot head shots to make some cash. By 1962, carrying a camera around was an old habit, and for two nights in May he took it with him to rehearsals and the performance at Madison Square Garden.
Helou shrugs when asked why he still thinks about that night. Isn't it obvious?
"Well, because I met so many stars! I was a chorus boy. I wasn't a star," he said. "That was a highlight in my life. It's been in my mind for many years."
So he stands in front of his card table at the Gulfport Art Walk, cajoling passers-by to take a look at his photos. The book is only $24.95, he says. It has all the pictures of the stars, he says.
He adjusts his glasses and his hearing aid and the "God Bless You" pin he always wears above his breast pocket. Behind him, on the table, Marilyn beams from the pages of his book.
"I was there. I saw the whole thing," he says as they walk by. "There she was — Marilyn Monroe!"
Aubrey Whelan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446.